Monday, April 27, 2009

SIN NOMBRE & THE "CHIC" FACTOR

Recently, in her post on current critical "it boy" Ramin Barhani and his 2008 film Chop Shop, blogger buddy Marilyn ended her insights on that film by mentioning - while admiring Chop Shop - that she couldn't avoid feeling that a mood of "radical chic" was inserted into the film in order to give it lasting emotional power. I won't (and I can't) speak for Marilyn, but I think she's onto something with a tag such as that, and, personally, I would push the label further into "immigrant chic" as it relates to Barhani's film.

Chop Shop is about a pre-teen Latino kid busting his ass in New York City's Iron Triangle so he can earn enough money to buy his own taco truck that will allow him and his sister to make their own living away from the shady dealings of chop-shoppery. Innocent, well-intentioned, and with a performance by the young Alejandro Polanco that rivals Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun, Chop Shop ultimately feels phony, a fly-by portrait of real destitution that, given a glossy lens and a cute curly-haired protagonist, makes affluent hipster couples feel good about themselves in the art cinema lobby.

This "chic" phenomenon of cinematic storytelling isn't new nor is it unique to movies about immigrants. Heck, the modern druggie film uses such romantic overglamorizations as its bread & butter. You'll see the chic factor on display in Courtney Hunt's recent Frozen River ("white trash chic"), it was all over the excruciating 21 Grams ("nihilism chic"), and it's what makes a total embarrassment out of Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries ("scumbag-fascist chic"). The intention of filmmakers who use the chic factor is to try and help audiences swallow an ugly truth, yet, ironically, this tool only ends up covering-up the truth, glossing over facts and reality for a prettier spoon-fed solution... and critical acclaim.

Unfortunately, the recently released Sundance sensation, Sin Nombre, buckles under the same indie chic conventions by riffing on the classic psychotic/tortured-soul chic in the character of Casper (Edgar Flores). Sin Nombre looks fine enough. Its opening shot of a fall exterior brings to mind the rich photography of Hong Kong cinema, and its nighttime visions of train cars escorting immigrant passengers away from a Honduran hell towards the Texas/Mexico border evokes a dreamlike mood of interstellar transport. But central to the film is the love story of gang-banger Casper and young, fellow-train traveler Sayra (the too cute Paulina Gaitan) and it's all just a little too sugar bear silly.

Much of Sin Nombre revolves around the actions and consequences of the notorious Salvadoran-based gang, MS13. For the "uninitiated", these guys are basically thug-Nazis, and while writer/director Cary Fukunaga certainly portrays them as the trash they are, he still shows an uncomfortable tendency to treat them like your average everyday boy-n-the-hood,... and that, they most certainly are not. MS13 is an international, well-funded, machete wielding crime organization whose tattooed-faced leaders would just as soon step on a baby's head than carry it around as a prop of sensitive complexity the way Fukunaga has gang leader Lil' Mago do so in Sin Nombre.

Sayra ends up falling for Casper like he's Jim Stark after he saves her from certain rape. In doing so - and in concert with earlier scenes that show Casper as a sensitive twink-boy lover - we quickly forget that this MS13 member has a past of murdering people, because, damn... he's just so cute! That tattooed teardrop beneath his right eye takes on a brooding bad-boy symbolism of sadness and seclusion that wipes out the cruel reminder of the crimes he previously committed. Yes, it's true that there are many reformed gang-bangers (including MS13 members) who end up living honorable, decent lives - and who may even become sensitive lovers - but Sin Nombre is simply another mediocre reminder that much of indie cinema is still so immature and an all too often chic magnet.

27 comments:

Greg said...

You should do at least one general topic (like the critics post you did) post a week so I can comment more on your blog. I never see movies when they come out so I never have anything to say. Do a post on how bad cheese smells after it has been sitting out in the heat for 72 hours. I could say a lot on that topic.

Fox said...

Greg-

I DO need to try and do that more often. Even if it's something simple like a picture of a hot person or Bob Balaban. (Who, incidentally, has come up in movie conversations three times over the past week or so.)

OR, I could post real life pictures of myself like the gnome in Amelie, but instead of Paris or Rome, I could be in front of Best Buy or Whole Foods or the Ice Age 3-D poster at the multiplex.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox: Terrific review. You make a compelling argument that I agree with in many ways but can't wrap my arms around entirely in relation to each of your examples. In other words, there's a lot of gray here.

So a few responses ...

I think the druggie chic concept is right on. So often, even films that show the negative side of drugs seem to spend at least as much time over-glamorizing (sometimes almost sexualizing) their use. Of course, when it comes to drugs (and I'm including alcohol here) we do that as a culture. I mean, really, how else can we explain how college kids can't wait to get so drunk that they wake up in their own vomit the next day? I digress. I think the "chic" label applies here, though I wonder if it reveals a cultural inconsistency more so than a artistic one. (Chicken and the egg, I suppose.)

In the other examples you presented, the chic tag doesn't work quite as well ...

* Frozen River is "white trash chic"? Thus meaning it can be accused of "covering-up the truth, glossing over facts and reality for a prettier spoon-fed solution"? I dunno. I'm not a huge fan of the film, but I can't say that anything within seems glamorized, never mind over-glamorized.

* The Motorcycle Diaries is "scumbag-fascist chic"? I realize that to some degree this has to do with your pet peeve related to the romanticism of Che in general, and in that respect I don't disagree. Then again, Diaries tells a smaller story; it isn't a full biopic. Isn't it at least possible that its first-person (essentially) view of Che's early life could be accurate? If so, yes, Diaries would be glossing over larger facts about Che on the whole, but not in relation to its story.

* As for Sin Nombre, there are two issues. Yes, the gang is captured in luscious City of God visuals, but I don't think there's any mistaking their evil. Maybe you wanted them to be portrayed even more negatively, but I got the point, just like I "get" the evil of Nazis without needing to see countless shots of Jews wasting away in concentration camps. Just because Sin Nombre takes place in an area that's under-represented on film doesn't mean that it should be responsible for being the end-all be-all portrayer of that topic, does it?

* As for Casper: Indeed, we are made to sympathize with him. But does that mean this is gang murderer chic? If we go back to the druggie chic example, to me the smoking gun is the inconsistency: romanticize an act while at the same time vilifying it (or pretending to do so). (Actually, this was at the heart of my disgust with Gran Torino, which I guess could be called bigot chic.)

I think in this case you're faulting Sin Nombre for not being gritty enough, and thus not "indie" enough, although that just means that you have a preconceived idea of what an indie movie should be. (You wouldn't be the only one.) In a sense what your review demonstrates is that indies are often just as formulaic as mainstream pictures; albeit with subtitles and/or foreign actors. Maybe the real argument here is that these indie movies aren't any deeper than anything made by a mainstream filmmaker other than Michael Bay.

For the sake of argument: Is Casper all that different from Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront? Is that classic movie "accomplice to murder chic"? Is MS13 portrayed as flatteringly as the Corleones in The Godfather? Is that classic film gang-banger chic?

I bring up those latter examples because they seem to commit the same sins, only they aren't modern indies and so no one expects gritty realism. I suspect, and I know you'll correct me if I'm wrong, that part of your frustration here stems from a belief that the average movie-goer will digest Sin Nombre as "Truth," because it's a gritty indie. I get that. But isn't that a fault of how fans and critics talk about such films, not a fault of the films themselves? Why should Sin Nombre need to be more truthful or biting than On the Waterfront?

I think you're on to something with the chic idea, and it's a great conversation topic. I'm just worried that the chic argument is being over-extended or at least inconsistently applied in your post above.

Sorry for the long ramble, but I'm not sure I'll get time to post more comments today.

Great thought-provoking stuff. Thanks, Foxy!

Daniel Getahun said...

I agree with some of Jason's comments but I ultimately still liked Sin Nombre a lot more than both of you did. And Bahrani's films, for that matter, all three of which I've found, as a first-gen immigrant like Bahrani, to be "realistic" in some way.

None of this should be surprising since you've both read my thoughts on a few films, but what I'm getting at is that I'm not sure how you're able to confidently invalidate the reality that these filmmakers are trying to portray. It seems easy (enjoyable?) for you to criticize them as misguided artists trying to find romance in these stories, but I would personally argue that enough of what they're showing is true that I can excuses the weaknesses of the story (in Sin Nombre's case, the romance and overall weak character development; in Frozen River's case, the ending). As nasty as MS13 is, I would imagine that yes, somebody like Lil Mago would hold his child within the safe confines of his territory. It might be a small detail but it's clearly meant to say something about the character, perhaps making him more "real" because he's more "human", tattoos and bloodlust aside. I've never been to that part of Mexico or ridden on one of those trains, but I don't consider it irresponsible for me to allow my perspective on MS13 or that region to be informed by this film any less than a cable TV documentary. (Speaking of which, I'm making sure to supplement Sin Nombre with a documentary about this subject tomorrow night.)

In all of these cases we're debating fictional characters, but should the fact that the films are often shot on location and based on "real" people (not the gang members, but Fukunaga riding the train as research) or "real" stories not count for anything? I haven't seen The Soloist yet, but I expect to like it more for what it's about than what it is. Had Bahrani created that story, wouldn't you then be criticizing him for "homeless chic"?

Maybe I'm just looking at these through a wider lens and in a world full of "Obsessed"'s and "17 Again"'s, my appreciation for simple exposure of the "bigger issues" (illegal immigration, poverty, human smuggling, drugs, what have you) is blinding me from each film's weaknesses. But I still feel like we have a tendency to criticize movies simply because we don't connect with or accept the realities they present. I found Margot at the Wedding and Rachel Getting Married almost intolerable to watch, for example, because they were so far removed from anyone or anything I've ever known or experienced. I was positively repelled, and while I can (and did) blame Baumbach and Demme for "upper-class-White-America chic", I accept that that's my personal reaction and not automatically a problem with the films.

So goes my stream of consciousness. This really is an interesting topic. Have either of you seen Sugar? My review of that should help explain the lens through which I view these "chic" films (a label that I don't reject outright, by the way).

Fox said...

Jason-

Let's begin...

* Frozen River is "white trash chic"? Thus meaning it can be accused of "covering-up the truth, glossing over facts and reality for a prettier spoon-fed solution"? I dunno. I'm not a huge fan of the film, but I can't say that anything within seems glamorized, never mind over-glamorized....

The interior shots of the trailer (the passing glance of a stained tub, the shot of unused and cheap beauty products, the dirty mirrors, the popcorn & Hi-C dinners) all feel like calculated cuts to give the viewer a feeling that this family is an anthropological artifact rather than a reference to genuine human beings.

I don't feel that the film makers and/or actors of Frozen River felt anything for actual people that live in these situations, rather they just used their living conditions and thrift store choice of clothing as a means to express a glamorized portrait of poverty for the screen. Melissa Leo's hard make-up may be accurate, but it feels like shallow imitation than any genuine actorly sense to relate or understand.

[NOTE: These are some of the same problems I also have with David Gordon Green's movies pre-Pineapple Express... with the exception of Undertow, which is a film where I think he almost gets the Southern-gothic fantasy right.]You make a good point on the "scumbag-fascist chic" accusation of mine relating to The Motorcycle Diaries. While I think that movie goes far in making a monster seem like a cute boy (the casting of the beautiful and miniature Gael Garcia Bernal!), I would agree with you that it doesn't use "fascist-chic". However, I do think it gives us a gumball version of a future-fascist, and I think Salles' film intends to extend the white-washing and romanticizing of a horrible man, but not by using "fascist-chic". I agree.

* As for Sin Nombre, there are two issues. Yes, the gang is captured in luscious City of God visuals, but I don't think there's any mistaking their evil. Maybe you wanted them to be portrayed even more negatively, but I got the point, just like I "get" the evil of Nazis without needing to see countless shots of Jews wasting away in concentration camps. Just because Sin Nombre takes place in an area that's under-represented on film doesn't mean that it should be responsible for being the end-all be-all portrayer of that topic, does it?...

I don't think we disagree about that much here. I definitely don't think Sin Nombre should be the "end all be all" on damning MS13, but I still have a problem with the crazy-beautiful style of photography that paints them as mildly romantic. It reminds me of the way Fincher films the grizzly interiors of Se7ev. Sure, it looks nice, but it only make nastiness appear pretty and, indirectly (or at least I hope so), glamorizes the death/torture crime scenes.

For the sake of argument: Is Casper all that different from Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront? Is that classic movie "accomplice to murder chic"? Is MS13 portrayed as flatteringly as the Corleones in The Godfather? Is that classic film gang-banger chic?No. Not at all on both of those examples. On the Waterfront and The Godfather are high-drama and perhaps even part melodrama. Sin Nombre is aiming for a gritty realism. To me, these are vastly different areas of cinematic expression. In the films I used for examples of "chic"-iness, there is a downtrodden grittiness or earthiness that is central to each film, and I think the differences between an On the Waterfront or The Godfather are clear when you consider how those two classic films are shot and acted in comparison to the way something like Sin Nombre is.

Fox said...

but what I'm getting at is that I'm not sure how you're able to confidently invalidate the reality that these filmmakers are trying to portray....

Daniel-

I'm not trying to invalidate the reality, I just think the film makers are cheapening it with their vision. I don't think they intend to do that, it's just the way I interpret their work. But I do think they are misguided, even though I think their intentions are good. Maybe misguided is too strong a word... perhaps I just think they've misfired. [For the record, I haven't seen Barhani's Man Push Cart or Goodbye, Solo, so I don't know if this is an issue I would have with ALL of his work, or just Chop Shop].

I haven't seen The Soloist yet, but I expect to like it more for what it's about than what it is. Had Bahrani created that story, wouldn't you then be criticizing him for "homeless chic"?...

I haven't seen The Soloist yet either, but my guess is that Joe Wright's style is going to be much different than that of Barhani's and Fukunaga's. Not all of "the chic factor" is in the style, but a large part of it is. I think a lot of the gritty "chic" in 21 Grams, for example, is in the way Inarritu chooses to shoot and direct his characters... saturated, sucked of life, drenched in the light of doom. It's the same way we see the dirt on Sayra's face in Sin Nombre (in that still at the top of this post). I think Fukunaga is attracted to the contast of dirty-ness on something pretty in an image like that, and, to me, that kind of comes off as cheap and phony and ultimately expressive of nothing.

So yeah, based on Barhani's style in Chop Shop, I may see his version of a movie like The Soloist as homeless chic, but we'll (probably) never know. (But you never now!)

Jason Bellamy said...

Rats. I don’t have time for this, but I can’t resist. A few things back …

Daniel: I don’t think I said anything negative about Sin Nombre, nor am I trying to invalidate its reality. It felt plenty real enough to me, and its sense of place is what I admire most about it. In my replies to Fox, I just didn’t want it to be confused that I was arguing that Sin Nombre is Truth, because that’s not the issue.

Having said that, the film feels “real” to me. Dramatized, sure, like almost all movies feel. But not in a bad way. I very much “connected” with Sin Nombre, which isn’t to say it’s an earth-shattering film. (Oh, and I’m saving your review of Sugar until I get a chance to see the film.)

Fox: It seems as if the root of your complaint in the examples provided (Frozen River, Sin Nombre, pre-Pineapple Express David Gordon Green) is a feeling that the films are too artful for their own good. In other words, once trash is made cinematic treasure via stunning cinematography, it doesn’t register as trash anymore. That about right? That’s interesting. I think we all go through that, but maybe you’re extra sensitive to it? (That’s not an insult, to be clear, just an observation. Your honest reaction is your honest reaction.)

As for Motorcycle Diaries, I think that’s a special case for you. Personally, I enjoy the movie for what it is: a story of a young idealist finding himself. I think it works as a general human drama. I think it works as a portrait of Che as a young man. (Yes, Bernal is “beautiful,” both physically and charismatically; but then obviously so was Che, or he wouldn’t have inspired such – often blind – allegiance.) To look at it a different way, yes, I’d be offended if someone made The O.J. Simpson Diaries and focused just on his triumphant football career with no mention whatsoever (not even in a printed epilogue) about his later sins. But my sense of narrative irresponsibility wouldn’t mean the glorification of Simpson’s football career was in any way inaccurate. Just saying.

Fox said...

Fox: It seems as if the root of your complaint in the examples provided (Frozen River, Sin Nombre, pre-Pineapple Express David Gordon Green) is a feeling that the films are too artful for their own good. In other words, once trash is made cinematic treasure via stunning cinematography, it doesn’t register as trash anymore. That about right? That’s interesting. I think we all go through that, but maybe you’re extra sensitive to it?...


No, I don't think they are too artful (ie too "cinematic") for their own good, or that the subjects demand a lesser form of artistry or cinematography or acting or whatever.

What I think about those films is that the directors are covering up their own personal artistic ineptitude by glossing it over with nice scenery, pretty faces, etc. Our eyes like what we are looking at, but there is nothing of great substance underneath. It's a pretty shell, but an empty shell.

Take Gordon Green. Tim Orr shoots a nice film, so, in my opinion, critics and fans end up placing a greater amount of meaning on Gordon Green's films than they deserve. In other words, All The Real Girls was already trash, but Gordon Green fooled people into thinking it wasn't by using the resources of Orr's camera, Deschnael's pretty eyes, and Paul Schnieder's lovable gumpy mug.

For the record, I don't think All The Real Girls uses the "chic" factor at all. I think George Washington does, but I think our conversation has kinda moved away from that and into the question of style over substance as a whole.

What I think about All The Real Girls, is that it ends up creating Southern caricatures in an effort to try and highlight Southern eccentricities. But it fails, horribly. Luckily, Gordon Green's buddy Jeff Nichols nailed those eccentricities with Shotgun Stories and we can officially do without a movie like All The Real Girls and George Washington from here on out.

Fox said...

Oh... and Daniel... I haven't seen Sugar yet, but I saw the trailer for it in front of Sin Nombre this past weekend.

I didn't like Half Nelson, so my hopes aren't so high, but then again, it IS about baseball and that is always a plus.

Jason Bellamy said...

"What I think about those films is that the directors are covering up their own personal artistic ineptitude by glossing it over with nice scenery, pretty faces, etc. Our eyes like what we are looking at, but there is nothing of great substance underneath. It's a pretty shell, but an empty shell."

OK, that I totally understand. Now, I'm not sure this is the same "chic" argument that you applied to the druggie chic (glorification) example in the original post -- hence my comment that there seemed to be some inconsistency.

But I agree with the general theory behind what I see as two potential filmmaking pitfalls (rather than one), even if I don't always agree about which films are afflicted. But that's another debate.

Good stuff. I always enjoy a good give-and-take at Tractor Facts.

Daniel Getahun said...

Alright, I think I have a better understanding of your take, Fox - you simply don't see the beauty that they see or try to make you see, or don't understand the purpose of it when you do? I get that, and as much of the time, I don't either. You mention Se7en, which is appropriate for this discussion, and I actually have the opposite reaction to that style (and in effect, the style of Sin Nombre, et.al.). It doesn't make anything pretty or glamorous, and the vividness and palette make it more visceral for me, which I think is Fincher's intent. If I'm understanding you, Bahrani and Fukunaga don't have the chops that Fincher does; they're not able to support their style with any substance. But maybe I'm not understanding you. I just get the sense that you see them as amateurs trying their hand at neo-realism.

And I agree that we've kind of gone into a discussion about artistry vs. reality or substance. Did you see Soderbergh's Che, or Steve McQueen's Hunger (Jason I'm sitting on your review)? I'm curious as to how you see them in this conversation. I really liked both of them and found them to be substantive art, Hunger much more so.

And Sugar, well it's Half Nelson-ish to the extent that it's not really about the subject you think it might be about - in this case, baseball.

Fox said...

Jason-

You're right, the further we debated, the further it got away from the "chic" factor in certain movies and went more along the lines of style over substance.

But those things aren't mutually exclusive. For example, I think Frozen River is style over substance, and I think much of that style can be described as "white trash chic". At least, that's how I see it... from the exterior of Melissa Leo's character, to her work environment at a dollar store, to the interior of her trailer home.

And just to be clear, I don't see things as dollar stores or trailers to be "white trash" in general, it was just in the way that Courtney Hunt filmed these locations that I felt she was going for that vibe. And I'm sorry, but that little homemade merry-go-round at the (somewhat) uplifting end? To me that wreaked of "white-trash chic". I'm not trying to convince you guys, I know we disagree on that... I just wanted to give another example.

P.S. Daniel, I will respond to your good comment tonight. I have to leave work ASAP and just can't squeeze it in right now!

More later....

hokahey said...

Fox - Your arguments and all the comments here have been interesting reading. I didn't quite observe the "chic factor" when I was viewing Sin Nombre but I felt that somehow the film strayed away from its central strength, which, for me, was the gritty details of the train trip. Once Sayra falls in with Willy - and gets off the train - the film seems to take a detour into more familiar scenarios.

Fox said...

If I'm understanding you, Bahrani and Fukunaga don't have the chops that Fincher does; they're not able to support their style with any substance. But maybe I'm not understanding you. I just get the sense that you see them as amateurs trying their hand at neo-realism.Daniel-

Ahh... David Fincher. The topic that never gets old for me. [NOTE: It's funny we've brought up both Fincher and, in passing, Undertow which have both been topics of Jason & Ed Howard's "Conversations"].I wouldn't say that Fincher necessarily has "the chops" that Bahrani and Fukunaga don't.

Now, I think Fincher is a very technically adroit guy, so I would place him above Bahrani and Fukunaga in that category, but I haven't been a fan of Fincher's films (with the exception of Panic Room) largely b/c I think he suffers the same style-over-substance affliction as the aforementioned. In fact, I would almost put him as the modern king of technical savvy over substance.

I have MANY problems with Se7en, but to keep myself from getting sidetracked (again) I will stick with the point you brought up, which was this:

(On the look of Se7en)It doesn't make anything pretty or glamorous, and the vividness and palette make it more visceral for me, which I think is Fincher's intent....

I can't really argue with your point there, b/c I think it's a strong one from the perspective of someone who likes Se7en (I'm presuming you like it, correct me if I'm wrong), but where you saw visceral, I saw glamorized true crime & murder.

Set aside the strength of the plot construction (which moves the seven deaths along at a pace that keeps the viewer rivited) and let's just take the individual crime scenes. To me, each one is set up as hyper-stylized and glossy with the intent of making the murder scenes appear to be "cool" or titilating. I think they are the centerpieces of the film and are crafted to make the viewer expect something grislier and nastier with each step. So to me, I think Fincher does shoot the murder scenes in a "pretty" way in that he gives them an allure that hooks viewers in.

Now...

You also bring up an interesting point about neo-realism as related to Bahrani and Fukunaga. It's a topic I thought about after the the critical reaction to Wendy & Lucy. I think it's fair to say that all three of those films (Wendy, Chop, and Sin) aspire to be in the neo-realism vein (perhaps wanting to be apart of a neo-neo-realism), but do they achieve that? Do any of the settings in those films really compare to the wasteland that was post-war Italy? Do they need to compare? And are the directors embedded with the subjects of their films the way DeSica and Rossellini were having lived in post-war Italy? I don't know. And I don't feel comfortable answering that yet. I'm just saying that if that's their touchstone, I think they may be missing the point.

But, really, I'm not prepared to really take the side of that debate either way, but I think it's an interesting one to have. Maybe for another day???????

Good conversation guys! Keep it going by all means! I know we're all busy at work, but it's been great.

Fox said...

Hokahey-

Thanks! Though I wasn't a fan of Sin Nombre the way you guys were, I agree with your point about it tailing off after Sayra and Casper fall for each other.

BTW ... (SPOILERS coming for anyone who cares), what did you think of the ending? I at least wanted Casper to live and get across the stream with Sayra. It felt like kind of a betrayal that he didn't.

Then again, perhaps that's part of the neo-realism argument that Daniel mentioned.

hokahey said...

ABOUT THE ENDING - SPOILERS -
The ending seemed inevitable and realistic - but sort of contrived plotting in that the little kid is one who does it. If Willy had gotten across the river, it might have felt too good to be true. I enjoyed the look on the kid's face when he's done it, and then all the gang members blast away and that seems to steal the kid's score.

Rick Olson said...

makes affluent hipster couples feel good about themselves in the art cinema lobby. Say what you mean, Fox. You've gotta learn to say what you mean if you're gonna make it in the blogging game.

Whatever you call it, "immigrant" or "radical chic" or just plain exploitation, it is rife in the movie biz, wherein filmmakers try to have their cake and eat it too: they try to make us feel bad about what we've done to the immigrants/homeless/main-streamed schizophrenics (see "The Soloist") then make us feel righteous about feeling bad. Have another Latte.

What a racket.

Fox said...

Rick-

Yes, they try to make us feel good about feeling bad. It's a technique of social-enlightenment through emotional self-flagellation.

It's stupid, but it's a convenient way for people who don't like to read or think for themselves to instantly become "aware".

EXAMPLE: When Farenheit 9/11 came out, I can't tell you how many people at work became instant experts on U.S. Foreign Policy and the Bush Administration.
Now, they couldn't care less, but at the time, it made them feel righteous.

Marilyn said...

I'm weighing in now on this post, which I seem to have inadvertently kicked off. I agree with Fox that the filmmakers who are now the flavor du jour in immigrant chic make films that just don't ring true to me. I've said it many times that with the sophisticated equipment available today, almost anyone can make a good-looking film.

It's perfectly appropriate for films to reflect society, and our society has become more global and our cities are absorbing new groups of immigrants. It's kind of relief that the stereotype of the gangbanger is giving way to Nelson Algren's way of looking at the down and out as people going about their daily lives, too. They just look to score and fix instead of catching the train for work.

The problem I have is that these films seem shallow. With Chop Shop, I saw an outsider looking in, gawking at a scene the way a well-meaning liberal might work in a soup kitchen once a month. I think Bahrani tried to tell an honest story, but it's not one he really knows and he's too young to express the depth that a story like this needs to avoid seeming slightly condescending.

I think these types of stories are seemingly more honest, but they are really stock Hollywood stories with conventional structures. Like all films that make us feel hip, smart, or virtuous, they become chic.

Daniel Getahun said...

"someone who likes Se7en (I'm presuming you like it, correct me if I'm wrong), but where you saw visceral, I saw glamorized true crime & murder."Eh, I can actually give or take Se7en in relation to his other films. Why do you think we see those scenes differently? It's really strange actually, you made me think about TV crime procedurals: I have the same disgusted reaction to those (and, perhaps unfairly, the people who watch them) as you do to the pretty grittiness in Se7en. But for whatever reason (and maybe it's because I don't watch TV anyway, or because it's just on a much bigger canvas), seeing these scenes/settings in films doesn't strike me as being hyper-stylized, but real and raw.

Regarding neo-neo-realism, well I'm surprised AO Scott's big essay a few weeks back hasn't been mentioned here, particularly because it led to a public back-and-forth on the subject between him and another critic. I wrote something on it, and as you can see I sided with Scott.

But you ask some interesting questions:

"Do any of the settings in those films really compare to the wasteland that was post-war Italy? Do they need to compare? And are the directors embedded with the subjects of their films the way DeSica and Rossellini were having lived in post-war Italy? I don't know."

I don't know, either, but the answers to all three of those are probably not as easy to pin down as you might like. And for what it's worth, Goodbye Solo may not be the best of Bahrani's three, but it certainly feels the most honest since it was shot in his hometown and in places he often went as a child.

In any case, seeing these movies doesn't make me feel "good", at least not consciously and definitely not out of a sense of righteousness, as much as they make me feel hopeful. Hopeful that, for example, filmmakers are still interested in making some films rooted in reality, and that seeing this films might, just might, make those affluent hipster couples think differently about being affluent hipster couples, not out of a sense of guilt so much as out of a sense of self-purpose. Initially and without any follow up that will lead to them giving a dollar to the homeless guy outside the theater and telling their friends they did so. Or, as you mention, they'll act the expert on particularly complex subjects (don't get me started on Moore).

But what if they see and absorb and compare enough of these films to the point where they're relating them to people they see outside the theater? The refugee working as hotel janitor (Goodbye Solo, in this case an actual refugee working as a hotel janitor), or the broken down piece of meat at the bar (The Wrestler), or the teenage girl who arrives in the U.S. with no family or future (Sin Nombre) - aren't these real people around us every day? Art and influence aside, can't these films help us gain a just a little better understanding of their circumstances, particularly when we're not going to take the time to actually sit and talk to them because we're so absorbed in our own lives?

Yes, I'm naive and I'm extremely idealistic when it comes to the power and purpose of film. I'm painfully aware of that fact, yet I feel like they affect me in a positive way so they should be able to affect others as well. But evidently from our discussion here, it would appear I'm in the extreme minority.

Marilyn said...

Daniel - You are a good person, and that is why these films affect you the way they do. You WANT to know about the world around you, break out of your bubble, care about people many others don't even see. Something in you, in the way you were raised, in the experiences you have had made you that way. Watching a dozen films like Chop Shop did not.

It is my experience that when mainstream films start to catch up with social change (e.g., Philadelphia), a critical mass of people have already decided that supporting a cause or lifestyle or whatever is a good thing. That's when people who don't know jack about AIDS or homelessness or whatever suddenly eralize that real people are involved. Sympathy has become mainstreamed. That, I think, is why we're seeing legalized gay marriages popping up all over the place, including a heartland state like Iowa. It wasn't the radical chic people who put it over either - it was the people working in the trenches day after day.

Fox said...

Marilyn & Daniel-

Good comments. Sorry I couldn't join in earlier, but I've had much much less free time than usual during the day this week (I hope that ain't a trend :( ). ...

Daniel, I don't think you're naive or idealistic (if you are idealistic, there's certainly no harm in that), I just think we disagree on these movies.

I believe in the power of film too, I just tend to side with Marilyn's point that there are too many people making films today and - in my opinion - that has pushed the quality quotient down quite a bit. Thing is, critics haven't moved with that quality quotient and still want to pretend that movie culture is in as great a shape as ever. I think that's why we see raves for movies like Iron Man and The Dark Knight... but that's another topic (or, perhaps, a can of worms that's already been opened too many times.)

If Chop Shop makes people aware of immigrant struggles in NYC, that doesn't automatically make it a good film, and I think that's where some critics make an error. (I'm not saying YOU made that error, or that Chop Shop is symptomatic of this type of reaction... just the example we're on right now.)

However, on a non-film criticism level, I do think that Chop Shop exposing people to an "issue" is a good thing, and I agree with you that socio-political films can have an impact on a person's life. I think if a film can spark an interest in something for somebody, regardless of the quality of the film, then that can be a positive thing on it's own.

That's where I would disagree with Marilyn, because I think our experiences, the experiences that make us who we are, are partially made up the art we consume. Now, maybe the art we consume (and respond to either positively or negatively) is more a reflection of our life experiences, but that might be taking us down a worm hole.

Regardless, I think it all goes into the pot that makes each one of us who we are.

I really liked The Wrestler, and I think that's a good example of where I would side with Daniel about a film that doesn't fall into the social-chic trappings we've been talking about here. However, I have read some detractors of that movie that say such things about it. So it goes... such is the fun of debating movies. And such is the enjoyment of movie criticism. I think our writing and opinions on them say as much about us as they do the movies themselves. What was it about The Wrestler, (and thus, about me) that made me see it differently than the gritty tales of Sin Nombre or Chop Shop that I didn't like? I don't if I could pinpoint that for you right now, and I think that's why I write on here as much as I can. It helps me try to figure myself out, make sense of my opinions, and why I am the way I am.

P.S. Thanks for linking up that A.O. Scott article, Daniel. I wasn't aware of it nor the debate he had with someone over it.

Daniel Getahun said...

Thanks for this discussion. Your last two comments really helped me understand your thoughts in relation to my own on these. I agree with you Marilyn that concern about issues (and perhaps thus appreciate of issue movies) is in my DNA, but I agree with Fox that, to some effect, we are what we see. Obviously each of us has poured out our thoughts on different issues and movies on our blogs, and I don't you could deny how some films, and especially some discussions about films, can change the way you think about the world. Not that I think any movie is a silver bullet, even a conversation-changer like An Inconvenient Truth. That would be comparable to calling Angelina Jolie a humanitarian and ignoring the millions of people who do real humanitarian work day in and day out. (For the record, I can't stand her.)

So I contradict myself in this issue because I'm usually with you all on the critical/skeptical/contrarian side. But for whatever reason, the idealist is brought out in me when it comes to film. Occasionally that leads to overpraise (indeed, the issue over the quality of the film), and that's something I should remain conscious of. Even this discussion has made me reconsider my thoughts on Sin Nombre, which is healthy.

Anyway, enough rambling, but as you perfectly state, Fox, "It helps me try to figure myself out, make sense of my opinions, and why I am the way I am."

Drugstore said...

Very good movie, is very sad that this is the reality of movie people around the world, even many girls marry with bad people just for run away from poverty.

Anonymous said...

Ya, Caspar is probably more cuddly than a real Marero would be likely to be, but movies with unsympathetic main characters don't fly, and it's pretty hard to sympathize with someone who would kill you and gang rape your family if you looked at him sideways.

Anonymous said...

In response to the "Chic" factor you describe, you do have an interesting point... However how can you claim to know anything of the reality of the lives of MS-13 members? The portrayal by Sin Nombre may be sensationalized and inaccurate (it is a fictional film, not real life) but saying that all MS-13 members would sooner stomp their own baby's head than hold and take care of it? Just because a person is a member of a gang does not mean they lack humanity. They are products of the poverty-stricken environment they are born into, but are just as human as you or I. By dehumanizing others, you are creating just as dramatized and inaccurate a portrayal of reality as those "chic" film makers.

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